When we were up in Northumberland recently, staying at Shieldhall, I was delighted to discover that we were just 20 minutes from Chesters Roman Fort, one of the numerous forts along Hadrian’s Wall. Back in my second year of university, I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the subject of Roman military bathhouses, with a primary focus on that of Chesters (known in Roman times as Cilurnum), which is the best-preserved example on the wall and indeed in Britain. Excavated in the 19th century by the landowner, the fort and bathhouse are now in the care of English Heritage, and while the Roman remains aren’t anything like as impressive as those you’d see in Italy, they are nevertheless some of the best to be seen in the UK. These barracks are where the soldiers stationed on the fort would have lived.
Remarkably, even the central drainage channel has survived.
In the commanding officer’s house, you can just see the remains of the hypocaust heating system in the room by the tree. I would think that this underfloor heating would have been greatly appreciated in the bracing northern climate, particularly as Roman soldiers came from all over the empire and were probably used to somewhat warmer climes.
Now we come to the bathhouse, which occupies a commanding position overlooking the river. My dissertation discussed the bathhouse as a place of social interaction, and not just between the soldiers themselves; I used it as a starting point for exploring the presence of women and children near these forts.
Like other Roman forts, Chesters would have had a vicus, or civilian settlement, growing up alongside it. This has never been excavated at Chesters, but it has been picked up through aerial photography and geophysics. There is archaeological evidence to suggest that women would have used this military bathhouse – hairpins and suchlike. Soldiers weren’t permitted to marry while they were in the army, but relationships with local women in the vicus were, in practice, tolerated, these unions even legalised as marriages following a soldier’s discharge from the army. There are even official documents surviving that show this.
These niches are thought to be where people left their clothes while they went to bathe.
This is one of the baths, forming part of a bathing routine that involved warm, hot and cold rooms. It’s likely that if women were using the military bathhouse, they would have had set opening times reserved for them.
The channel here forms part of the latrine. There is an even better preserved latrine at Housesteads, another fort along the wall.
The whole place was heated via a furnace in one of the corners, which would probably have been manned by slaves. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like when you see the ruins lying so peacefully in this beautiful spot.
In my dissertation, I made the point that the bathhouse (like the aforementioned hypocaust system for the commanding officer) must have provided a welcome retreat from the cold Northumbrian air – especially in the depths of winter. It was a nice warm day when we visited, though!
If you’re interested in visiting Chesters, you can find out more and plan your visit here.